Alcuin’s Educational Reform in 8th Century Europe

by Alexander Rumann

As a result of barbarian attacks on the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Europe was in chaos and confusion. This led to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, controlled by the Catholic Christian church. Education at this time was nearly nonexistent and was only in the scholastic form in monasteries with monks copying texts. Most of the learning toward the 8th century was focused on Biblical texts or written works of the members of the church that were related to the Bible. The monasteries copied texts from early Greek and Roman literature but only those which they found interesting and most important, so limited topics were kept. Education overall at this time was in a sorry state, as most did not obtain any at all and what they did receive was very constricted to focus on the Bible. Literature that had been easily accessible in the early Roman Empire had been isolated to libraries in cathedrals and monasteries. Due to the lack of access to literature and education most of Europe’s population was illiterate. The church at this time believed that most of the teachings on secular subjects were a sin against God and was therefore not taught. Those that received an education were those who were wealthy and being groomed for a career in the church. There were those that came along who wished to change education and made huge contributions not only to the church but to society as a whole, one of these people is Alcuin of York. Alcuin of York built the foundation of which the revival and reform of education in Europe was built upon in the centuries to come. This education reform was backed by Charlemagne who was successfully keeping the barbarians of Europe at bay in his military campaigns, which allowed Alcuin to carry out his efforts to change education of the known kingdom.

Education in the arts and philosophy were studied to help further understanding of the Bible but for only that purpose. Liberal arts that were studied for the sake of interest alone and apart from biblical understanding were considered heresy and people were put to the death or banished for such actions. The arts of Greek and earlier Roman culture were considered to be pagan learning and seen by the church as ineffectual and immoral. In the 5th Century liberal arts were viewed as suitable studies for Christians due to the necessity of understanding scriptures in a clearer way. Augustine considered the liberal arts to be grammar, music, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, and philosophy (West, pg. 10, 12, 14, 15). The culture of this time revolves around God and learning about God in a scholastic setting. Learning was limited to only that which would further ones knowledge of biblical scriptures and understanding of those scriptures.

Alcuin was born sometime between the years of 730 and 740 CE in Northumbria, England which is close to York (Plater). He came from a modest family of nobility from York and went to the cathedral school there. While at school he was taught by Egbert who was a student of the Venerable Bede. He remained at the cathedral school in York where he became the master at the death of Egbert in 766. Alcuin became a deacon of the church and officially held the office of scholasticus teaching young boys to be leaders of the church. Through his works as an educator he became the most well known master in Britain (West 31, 34, and 38). Alcuin quickly became a reputable teacher of adolescents in Britain despite that in the late 760’s the area was violent and unstable due to the attacks of the barbarian tribes of the Anglo-Saxons (Bullough 137). In the year 780 Alcuin was given charge of the most famous cathedral library in Britain. Despite his duties he took many trips to Rome, either for personal reasons or he was sent there to retrieve documents from the Pope, where he met influential people such as Charles the Great in 781. He was called by Charles the Great to go to Frankland to head the teaching at the chapel in the palace (West 34). Aside from the vast amounts of educational reforms that Alcuin made he also made a very large contribution in literature. He wrote numerous letters back and forth to very well known people of the Empire such as the Pope and Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne and various priests and bishops throughout the kingdom. He also wrote many theological treatises and Biblical commentaries which were very common for scholars of that time. In addition he wrote books on dialectic and rhetoric works that he shared in his lessons with Charlemagne. He also produced textbooks that could be used by schools around Europe for their curriculum. Although it is less noted, and it was considered unimportant to any except traders who needed basic accounting skills, Alcuin also wrote a text book on arithmetic that was comprised of fifty three word problems (Sunshine). He left immense amounts of comprehensive works of books on liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire that were mostly lost, dialectics, rhetoric and dialogues that he stored in the library at Saint Martin’s that were used for teaching in his school (Pedersen 75).

Around the year 782 Alcuin left England to start educating at the palace of Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, at Aachen (West 39). He was given charge of educating the administrators of the kingdom but he was most famous for teaching Charlemagne himself. He also taught Charlemagne’s children and the clergy of the chapel at the palace in France (Sunshine). Alcuin was given a difficult task of tutoring not only the young royalty in the palace but also the elders there as well. He had to find a way to interest a broad range of ages to keep order in his classes. He covered what was considered the liberal arts starting with the basics of grammar and moving to arithmetic and then dialectic and rhetoric. The palace soon became the only centre for higher studies in the kingdom (West 45). Alcuin became the trusted advisor to Charlemagne and together they would set up schools all around the Frank kingdom in the cathedrals and monasteries. The palace schools that Alcuin started would only last a few generations however the schools he set up in monasteries and cathedrals would later be the main front for educational revival in Europe. As Charlemagne’s advisor, Alcuin convinced Charlemagne to stop the forced baptism of the barbarians and made a convincing point to the king that Christianity can only be chosen not forced upon the people of his kingdom, faith is not something that can be coerced (Sunshine). Charles did not want to be the king of a barbarian and illiterate kingdom so he sought to educate his kingdom and install Christian ideals in his people with the help of Alcuin. Alcuin was an indispensible asset and advisor to the king during this time. Alcuin and Charlemagne together set up schools around the kingdom to advance the church. Schools were set in cathedrals, monastic settings and eventually in villages. The cathedral and monastic schools were to educate at an elementary level and in some case there was superior learning. In local villages education was at the elementary level and didn’t advance past that (West 48, 56). This was by far better than what education was in up to the early 9th century when there were a very few that were educated and even those that were educated were only educated enough so they could read and write adequately to copy old books or scrolls. Alcuin had taken the palace school and built it up into the finest institution in the kingdom which was the center for culture and an undeveloped academy. In the short amount of time that Alcuin spent at the palace school he made a huge impact on academics with the works that he did and the ideals that he instilled there. Alcuin strove to encourage learning to be more tolerant of the liberally scholastic tradition of earlier Rome and Greece (Pederen 75). Alcuin believed in a standardization of the curriculum used in schools and he strove to provide those standard versions by studying the available copies and he would select the best document or documents that he found for the master copy. Then all copies were made from the master copies of these texts he found and these became in a sense textbooks for use in schools. These textbooks that Alcuin had created were then in a standard version of the texts that were easily copied, before that was a lot of variation in copied texts but Alcuin eliminated a large portion of this error (Sunshine). Along with creating these textbooks Alcuin would go through the libraries and collect large amounts of books and other works of literature and he would collect excerpts from the texts that he would spend a great amount of time reading and sometimes complete works as well. These works that he found had been neglected for centuries would then become extremely useful as textbooks (Bullough 138). Among many other things Alcuin had a doctrine of separating liberal literature and Christian morals. He believed that learning should not be limited to the sole purpose of advancing ones knowledge of biblical text. Previously the church had frowned upon knowledge for the only purpose of educating one’s self and Alcuin strove to present this as an acceptable thing to do (Bolton 17). The idea that education and the church should be apart was an idea that he founded his teachings on and applied them wherever he went. In gaining knowledge through the process of education he found he saw that virtue, truth and learning had an independent value that the church and Christianity must come to respect if the kingdom was to survive (Pedersen 76). Alcuin and Charlemagne organized three levels of education in the empire: the “university” which was the palace school and stood at the top of the hierarchy of schools, secondary schools found in a select few monasteries and cathedral schools, and then the primary schools which were at every level at the cathedrals, monasteries and also the village schools throughout Europe. Primary education was the only material covered in the village schools (West 58). This hierarchy of schooling is the progression of education that is found in the modern era. Even though the teachings at different levels education varies, the progression through primary, secondary, then the university is still how things are today. This is the system that was set in place by Alcuin and his followers with the help of Charlemagne.

After eight arduous years at the palace Alcuin reluctantly took up the position in Tours, France as an abbot at the abbey of Saint Martin’s. Even though Alcuin was reluctant to take the post as abbot he did some of his greatest work at St. Martin’s. He set up a large library with the textbooks he had put together along with other literature from centuries before. Along with the library Alcuin set up a scriptorium where he trained scribes to accurately copy texts that were used in schools throughout the kingdom. Through these courses that Alcuin was setting up the monastery of St. Martins became tremendously prosperous and eventually turned into the most noteworthy centre of learning of the age (Pedersen 75). Alcuin had reached his 60th year of life in 792 and wished to retire to a quiet monastery in Fulda but Charles ignored his request and made him Abbot of the abbey, St. Martin in Tours. Alcuin wished to return to his home town of York but when he returned on a short vacation found it in a sad state and the ruler was very cruel and unjust. He returned to the palace for a short while where he came up with several treatises before becoming the abbot. Apart from the learning in Alcuin’s monastery, there was a monastic revival that had to take place because of the loose morals of the monks and the lack of discipline they showed to their vows. Alcuin brought in monks from other parts of the kingdom to help with this revival of Benedictine order. Alcuin saw that the educational system he set up in Northumbria was falling apart and that the system in Frankland would not always be protected by a powerful ruler like Charles and he feared that his teachings would disappear. He devoted the last years of his life in an effort to train his pupils to carry on his teachings and instill in them the dedication to learning and education that he himself had. Alcuin set up the same educational structure that he did at York and the palace. He teaches the younger boy’s grammar and the older students he teaches scriptures and ancient disciplines, liberal arts, and astronomy. He had now planted the same three schools at York, the palace and now Tours. Although Alcuin was continuing to educate at Tours he felt that he was inadequately supplied with books and sent a request to the king to have monks sent to York to retrieve his library. Alcuin writes “I, your servant, lack the rarer books of scholastic erudition which I had in my own country through the devoted industry of my master, Egbert, and by my own labors” (West 63-67).

The monastic schools alienated themselves from the cathedral schools, even with the bishops having jurisdiction over the monks. Along with the constant conflicts that were going on between the bishops and monks there was a split in the monastic schools. There were the interior schools and exterior schools. Interior schools focused on only training boys who were given to the monasteries for a life as a monk. The exterior schools were to train boys to become priests of the church and also for those who were intended for secular professions. Both of the interior and exterior schools gave a gratuitous instruction. The monastic schools were extremely strict and flourished more than the cathedral schools even though the education received was not that much different between cathedral and monastic schools. Whether in the monastic or cathedral schools education started with the basics of reading and writing which were the most essential and rudimentary skills. Students would then proceed to grammar, which was crucial in understanding the scriptures and therefore the most time was devoted to grammar. Along with grammar, reading and writing there was also sometimes dialectic and rhetoric, past this there was nothing further in education except in a few monasteries. In all the schools the study of the Holy Scriptures was of the upmost important and was studied in great detail at the cathedral and monastery schools and was only viewed at the most basic level in the village schools. In the village schools the only important aspects of the bible they were expected to learn was the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few of the psalms (West 58).

While in Tours, Alcuin spent most of the last 8 years of his life corresponding with kings and leaders of the kingdom, over 300 letters about education. Alcuin’s main concern with not only educating the youth that were in attendance at his school at the time but also for future generations after he was gone. He strove to not only educate men that were to be priests and monks but also those that were to someday become teachers that would rise up and take his place one day. Alcuin found out in the year 796 that one of his former pupils had been elevated to archbishop of York. He rejoiced that he was privileged to have taught someone that has reached such a high honor. He then proceeded to help the archbishop by giving him advice on how to run the schools of York, telling him to separate students into classes of those who study books, those who practice music and those who transcribe. Alcuin also writes to his old pupil about assigning a master to each subject in order to keep the boys from getting unruly (West 76).

Alcuin’s life was spent making dramatic changes to academics. He dedicated his life to educating an illiterate country that desperately needed instruction. With the help of King Charles the Great they revolutionized education. Alcuin set up three institutions that all instilled the same ideals of education. The school in York is what put Alcuin on the map and got him recognized as an extraordinary teacher and sought after by Charles the Great. The two other institutions at the palace and later in Tours were just as great as the school in York and paved the way for education in the centuries to come in Europe. Alcuin’s school at the palace of Charles was considered a university at the time; although it is not what we would consider a university today. The revolution that Alcuin started with his educational reforms in the late 8th century would be a small stepping-stone to what would later become the first recognizable universities. The simple changes that Alcuin made and the fact that he reintroduced the liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire caused a huge change in the literacy of Europe. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was in a state of barbarianism that was spiraling down. The leaders of the time were only focused on scholastic learning of biblical texts and only certain people were allowed to go through extensive learning. The empire hung by a thread and if not for the changes that Alcuin made and the works he contributed the empire might have fallen due to its illiteracy. Alcuin laid the foundation for what would later become the university through his works in education.



Bolton, W. F. Alcuin and Beowulf. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1978. Print.

Bullough, Donald. Charlemagne: Empire and Society. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005. 137-138. Print.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Plater, Ormonde. “Alcuin of York.” Through the Dust. N.p., 19 May 2008. Web. 22 Jan 2012..

Sunshine, Glenn. “Alcuin of York.” Christians Who Changed Their World. (2011): n. page. Web. 21 Jan. 2012.

The Trivium Through The Ages

by Alexander Rumann

Liberal Arts have been the basis for education since ancient Greece and are still used to this day. The Trivium has been long standing as the foundation for education. The trivium makes up the first tier of the liberal arts and consists of Grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Learning the first three liberal arts is the starting point for the rest of learning that would consist of the quadrivium and then higher learning in research. The three parts to the trivium all feed off each other and one must learn each subject thoroughly before moving on. The starting point of the trivium is grammar for obvious reasons. Students must learn to read and write their letters and make complete coherent sentences. After grammar students move on to the more difficult subjects of rhetoric and dialectic. The last two that are mentioned are argument, also known as public speaking, and logic respectively. These three subjects are to prepare students for the other half of the liberal arts, the quadrivium. The trivium was an instrumental tool for education in ancient Greece and is still used in the world to this day.

As a young child in Greece you would have three teachers. One teacher would be for physical training, a music teacher and one who would teach you letters. The teacher of letters would teach you the basics of reading and writing (Barrow 62). The belief was that a student could not continue on to other parts of the trivium until they had a solid foundation in grammar. The goal of education was to generate sociable and happy citizenry. Education of the Athenians in the fifth century B.C.E. was a form of training in a very strict sense that was more a system of instruction. It consisted of two main parts: the training of the mind and training of the body (Walden 10). Due to the strict sense of education the Greeks used physical was the only way they knew how to deal with unruly students and a child’s resistance to learning to read which they found incomprehensible. The reason for having such a strict system was for the purpose of trying to create a civic spirit, a pride in belonging to a free city, and having loyalty to a political community (Finley 186, 188).

Education in ancient Greece was heavily influenced by the sophists. The sophists especially were the ones who promoted grammar (Walden 20). In the ancient civilization of Greece the trivium was started around the age of twelve, much older than a child in today’s world would start education. In Greece a child would start grammar school at twelve and typically stay there till the age of fifteen where they would then move on to the next stage of the trivium. According to an ancient writer grammar is an ancient discipline that we are exposed to from a very early age. This is true that in grammar there is a concern with the written word and literate societies were concerned with an education that had a large role in the mastery of words (Clarke 11, 12). Before reaching the age to attend grammar school, boys were to be taught by their father or guardian. Fathers were to provide some sort of training to their children so they could obtain some profession or trade when they are older (Walden 60).

The ultimate goal of teaching grammar was to assist student in becoming proficient and effective language users (Glenn 10). Grammar was taught by a specialist called the grammatikos. The basic function of the grammatikos was most revealed in times of decadence when the program was reduced to the bare essentials. Even to this day our vocabulary bears witness to the irreducible nucleus of grammar. The grammatikos would teach very elementary exercises in composition. He would also do some preparatory work with students in the areas of the other parts of the trivium. He would give the basic instruction of the theory behind the art of oratory and the elementary principles of logic (Marrou 192). This early instruction would lead into the area that would be taught by the rhetorician. Grammarians would have boy citizens from the ages twelve to fifteen and then the children would move to the rhetorician. The grammatikos would provide what would now be considered preparatory school (Clarke 12).

Today we still have what we would consider preparatory and grammar schools. Even though in today’s life children are sent to school at the ages of five to seven depending on the parents. Grammar schools are still the first step in a person’s education that must be mastered before they can move on just like in Greek culture. Without grammar a student would be completely helpless in higher education and would have no hope of obtaining the necessary tools to knowledge. The use of grammar is important throughout a person’s life no matter what profession they enter in to. Without the ability to read and write there is little that one can do in society today and causes a great hindrance on them as a functioning role in society. Grammar is of the upmost importance and is the major stepping stone for education.

The second part of the trivium is known as rhetoric, also known as oratory or argument. Boys would start rhetoric school after completing grammar school at the age of fifteen and remain there until the age of eighteen (Walden 33). Rhetoric or public speaking was considered a way of employing various oratorical tropes or ‘tricks of the trade’. Scholars like Plato and Aristotle didn’t initially agree with the art of rhetoric because it was not based on objective facts that could be backed up, it was all about presenting your side in a fair light. Oratory was mainly used to appeal to a person’s emotions rather than present facts (Fuller 296). The main goal of an orator is to express his appealing personality to his audience. It is of the utmost importance to impress that he is a man of common sense, upstanding moral character, and of good will. The orator must be able to read the various emotions of the audience any play to their sympathies and use their feelings to his advantage, in a sense he must excite them. In rhetoric a man must be an expert in controlling the emotions of his audience. He should be able to cause a rise in anger or quickly turn away the wrath of a crowd; or possibly implant a feeling of friendliness or hatred. He cultivates fears in his listeners or inspires them to make a motion. In the same ways he should make the audience feel shame or shamelessness or he must impress on them how kind he is and the unkindness of his opponent and by doing that appeal to their pity. Needless to say the orator must use various methods to excitants not with any respect to the merits of his cause but only to ensure victory. A great rhetorician is one who has the power to impress his own personality onto the audience. He uses this art to manipulate what he says into something that seems credible so as to win the assent of his spectators. It makes no difference if he uses this power of influence for good or falsehood. Orators’ who skillfully choose or invent maxims that express the beliefs of his listeners gets a reputation of being a man of good reputation. The gist of oratory is to string together maxims properly and apply them to the situation at hand. In order to be a great rhetorician one must be familiar with the subject they are presenting whether it is history, finance, or law. Athenian society was constituted on the fact that every citizen should be both their own congressman and lawyer if they were ever convicted of a crime but also to function in society. Most political arguments largely consist of discrediting the opponent as making the other persons argument seem unjust, unimportant or useless (Fuller 294, 296-7, 301).

Rhetoric has two sides to it. When someone uses the art of oratory for good everyone loves it but when it is used for evil we find rhetoric to be terrible. Modern day rhetoricians that we know are Roosevelt and Churchill and also Hitler (Barrow 25). As in ancient Greece as it is today public speaking is extremely important whether it is used for good or evil. Speaking clearly or marshalling an argument can determine whether anyone will listen to or follow you. In today’s world rhetoric is still in use to the same extent it was in ancient Greece. Lawyers and congressmen today use the art of oratory every day to defend clients or rally people to their cause. Without rhetoric there would be a different world than the one we live in. The United States justice system is based on rhetoric; condemning or clearing accused of charges is the way our courts run.

The third part of the trivium is dialectic or also known as logic. Dialectic is literally translated means ‘discussion by question and answer’. Plato argued that discussion between individuals is a much better way of seeking knowledge. Through this discussion one can develop understanding which Plato saw as the essence of education. Dialectic plays off of rhetoric in the sense that it is a form of conversation that is built from the basics of grammar and also a part of rhetoric. The original purpose of dialectic was to understand mathematics. “The metaphor of the line introduced four modes of perception, the final two of which are thinking focused on mathematical objects and true intellect or knowledge focused on the Forms. Mathematical thinking is inferior to dialectic in two respects: it makes use of models, diagrams and so forth and it takes its own concepts for granted or does not question its own hypothesis”, this was not the case later on (Barrow 87, 96, 105-6). What Plato defined dialectic as was “not thinking applied to this or that field but pure thinking, proceeded by independently by sensuous perception”. Dialectic was and is a very abstract study. One devotes themselves to the analysis and clarification of concepts, leading to their arrangement in the interrelated systems which follow the laws of classification and decision and make technical definition possible (Lodge 97, 106).

Logic is still a topic that is used in education today. There is no set curriculum for logic in today’s school system but it is still used. At a young age children usually learn by question and answer even before they are enrolled in school. Anyone who has been around a four year old can attest to that. This style of learning has been used since ancient Greece. There are classes in the college level that are logic based but this is a subject that has been eradicated from early education.

The trivium has come a long way since ancient Greece but it is still a vital part in our educational system. The use of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic has continually been a part of the education that a young person receives. The main pieces are in place still to this day even if how they are taught is completely different. The quadrivium was abandoned during parts of the Middle Ages but the trivium has been constant. There have been changes to the teaching method and presentation of the trivium but it has ever been there in education. The trivium as the foundation of the liberal arts is still the same today as it was back in ancient Greece.

Clarke, M.L. Higher education in the ancient world. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971. 11-2, 33. Print.

Marrou, H.-I. The Legacy of Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. 186-192. Print.

Glenn, Cheryl. The Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers, 1995. 9-11. Print.

Fuller, B.A.G. History of Greek Philosophy. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968. 294-301. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato. Great Britain: Biddles Ltd, 1988. 5, 25, 62, 87, 96, 105-6. Print.

Walden, John. The Universities of Ancient Greece. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909. 10, 20-21. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato, utilitarianism and education. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. 179-180. Print.


This paper was originally created for Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.